Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World.
By Daniel Sherell.
New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2021.
In April 2018, a civil rights lawyer and activist named David Buckel burned himself to death in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in an act of protest against climate inaction. He had mailed a suicide letter to the press explaining the purpose of staging an “early death” with fossil fuel: “It reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
The tragedy of Buckel’s self-immolation frames Daniel Sherrell’s new book, Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of the World—but not in the way that you might expect. News of the event doesn’t immediately reach Sherrell, a climate organizer and writer. He had learned to ignore the incessant pings of news alerts, he says, whose “vibrations I’d grown accustomed to associating with tragedy.” Instead, he spends much of that day tramping across Central Park, watching row boats “flitting back and forth behind the curtain of the willows.” It is only later that night that Sherrell checks his phone and sees the news: “While the man burned—the flames carbonizing his skin, evaporating his blood—I hadn’t felt a thing,” he writes. “It had been a beautiful day, and as I said, I’d spent much of it asleep.” All this we encounter in just the first three pages of Warmth, yet they sufficiently exemplify much of the prose to follow: plangent passages with an undertow of Kierkegaardian irony.
Warmth is a doleful and frequently moving phenomenological account of what it means to pursue a vocation as a climate activist in a world careening from crisis to anthropogenic crisis—a blazing work of emergency ecocriticism. Sherrell’s background is in social justice. Since graduating from Brown, where he led a coal divestment campaign, he has made a life out of climate organizing, working with groups like the Sierra Club, NY Renews, and Green New Deal Network to pass climate change legislation, shut down coal plants, and invest capital in clean jobs that won’t hasten climate disaster. He currently serves as campaign director with Climate Jobs National Resource Center. For another, different activist, the determining momentum of a lifetime of this work might have dictated a roman à clef chronicling internecine fights or a full-throated manifesto for tackling global warming. (For an example of the latter, see How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm.) Warmth is neither of those things—it is a self-reflexive and discursive work that asks: What imaginaries become possible when we make caring for an unborn child the center of our politics and aspirations?
There’s an Orphic quality to much climate writing; writers such as Nathaniel Rich have looked at specific conjunctures in past decades when the world’s major powers had a chance of reducing carbon emissions, and there is an older tradition of writers working in the pastoral, georgic, or Romantic lyric registers to chart climate chaos in its sundry guises in the countryside or city. Writing by professional scientists and activists on climate change, on the other hand, is frequently arid and full of statistics: Leaf through any annual report from a do-gooder organization (full disclosure: I work for one) and you see complex concepts baked dry by an unforgiving sun.
Sherrell’s book is refreshingly different. It is an avowedly future-orientated work that revives climate writing by bringing together discussions of philosophy, critical theory, literature and film criticism, anthropology, and dispatches from his own life. For me, it uncorked a range of feelings, from the depressive to the ecstatic—often on the same page. The book invites readers into an open house designed by Sherrell’s synthesizing sensorium: References to science writers like Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert appear alongside films like Melancholia and the writings of Bruno Latour, Simone Weil, Proust, Lee Edelman, Roy Scranton, Maggie Nelson, and Anna Tsing. Sometimes, though, the references can overwhelm; by the fourth mention of Latour in as many pages, I found myself thinking of what Kant, via Chesterfield, said about enlivening dinner parties: “The company must not number fewer than the graces or more than the muses.”
There’s also a less obvious upshot to writing about climate change in Sherrell’s chosen mode of the first person. At a time when so much discussion about climate change deals in abstract and structural terms with the intersecting impacts of multi-species assemblages and geophysical processes, focusing instead on a single human as a unique geologic actor can be a moment of specificity and situated clarity. There are also ethical implications to this reduction in scale. Who, after all, does it benefit to speak of the “Capitalocene”? What is the kind of life “we” are rushing to preserve in the first place in the face of unprecedented climate disaster? Is climate justice possible, or will it always be unequally distributed? For a progressive activist to pause and voice such questions is uncommon enough as to seem heretical. Yet it points to a pitfall of talking about extractive processes and their colonial legacies in the abstract: Too often, any sense of differentiation among human experiences gets obscured.
It’s common for climate activists to think of their work as a Swiss army knife: sharp, nimble, and useful enough to tackle any number of issues at a moment’s notice. Sherrell is no stranger to this intense, if self-congratulatory, work ethic that defined his work at NY Renews: “Everyone I knew who was working on the Problem threw themselves at it with sub-healthy abandon. It had an incandescent gravity, like a lightbulb for moths, something painful we kept slamming ourselves into.” Mixed metaphors aside (can gravity take on incandescent qualities?), the point about the difficulty of fighting the good fight is persuasively made. Day after day, Sherrell plays traffic cop, firefighter, and acrobat as he fields queries, attends to breaking news, brainstorms with his team, and massages and shepherds innumerable press releases out the door. He has a wide remit, working one moment to push for legislation mandating the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions in New York, and the next to funnel more funding to low-income communities or tax companies that bear an outsized responsibility for “the Problem.” “The trick with the work was not to think about the sheer length and delicacy of the causal chain we were trying to set in motion,” he writes.
Throughout the book, Sherrell eschews the phrase “climate crisis,” substituting a much more nebulous term “the Problem.” “I doubt we’ll ever render it fully,” he notes, “or capture its bulk in the net of a name” but “the Problem” does a better job of conveying the crisis as what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject,” or an object that is “so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization.” “In this understanding,” Sherrell continues, “the Problem is both a mist and a monolith—it is everywhere but it cannot be touched, and so resists definition. I thought that if I could glance the right scenes and themes off its sides, I might begin to illuminate the whole, help us both get a grasp on it.” If “the Problem” is something that cannot be defined head on, communication (as the “us” implies) must also be triangulated.
Although Warmth is billed as a memoir, the book takes the form of a letter to Sherrell’s unborn child—a figment from beginning to end. It didn’t begin that way—Sherrell tapped out first drafts on his phone in the interstitial moments of busy work days. It was a strategy for “fend[ing] off hopelessness,” he admits. “I realized that if I was ever going to actually start a family—if I was going to move you from the flourishing world in my palm into the collapsing world at hand—then I’d owe you an honest account of why. Not just the decision, but its context, the whole story: what I thought about and what I read, how I felt and how I was numb, where I found faith and where I harbored doubt. And how difficult it was to hold out hope, to keep you viable against the rising mercury.”
It’s as if, in coaxing himself to bring forth this book, Sherrell takes seriously the task of answering the question “What would it look like for a book-length work to be written in the subjunctive?” Like one of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses, Warmth “rests in a mood” and invites the reader to dwell, not on biblical passages to restore faith in Christianity, but on the slow violence of climate change. From the outset, this poses some interesting questions: What does it mean for the reader to be constantly addressed as the child? Is this a formula that too easily preempts criticism? Is the mode of conveyance “naïve,” as Sherrell worries?
Yet Sherrell’s child is never given a voice or fleshed in with subjectivity, which encourages the easy conflation. Even if this identity is not meant to be coextensive, the rhetorical indeterminacy can be destabilizing at times, like entering a Bermuda Triangle of signification. Sherrell singles out, on more than one occasion, Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, as the archvillain of the climate crisis and parts of the book are jeremiad-like in their scorn and fury: an activist’s righteous open letter to a climate culprit. Other sections, though, seem to be addressed to fellow activists, or those “who have themselves felt the feelings [the Problem] evokes—feelings that cannot be acquired from anyone else, but must be cultivated separately, in the privacy of each gut.”
The overriding sense, however, is that the intended audience is not so much Pruitt and his cronies or an unborn child as Sherrell himself. It is an eminently Kierkegaardian project, written from a position of teleological humility. Indeed, for great stretches of the book, Sherrell seems to be channeling the melancholy Dane above anyone else. There are surface similarities: Like Kierkegaard, Sherrell enjoys long walks and favors modes of ironic or indirect communication. Kierkegaard luxuriated in daily “people baths” —a peripatetic mode of philosophizing with others—and was famous for composing stylistically experimental works that fractalized his identity and resisted conclusive interpretations; he wrote his dissertation “On the Concept of Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates” and made promiscuous use of pseudonyms and fragments in much of his writing. Yet Warmth shares its deepest affinities with Kierkegaard in its preoccupation with faith.
For Kierkegaard, only by achieving faith can one become a “true self.” As he wrote, in the guise of Anti-Climacus in The Sickness Unto Death, the self “is a relation which relates itself to itself.” (There seems to be a connection here to Hannah Arendt, forever “diving for pearls” from the past, and her conception of thinking as having a “two-in-one” conversation with oneself.) Faith, for Kierkegaard is a matter of constant striving and demands renewed avowals of belief in “a power that constituted it.” To renew one’s faith is also to shore up a sense of one’s selfhood. Another way to read Sherrell’s addresses is to see them as addresses to himself—as invocations of faith that ward off maelstroms of existential despair. He hints at this when he writes, in its final pages: “Writing to you has helped me live in reality, to behold the Problem without blinking or turning away. In this there is a second irony: that for all my talk of bringing you into the world, it is you, ultimately who’s helped bring me into mine.” Warmth doesn’t so much as end as break off: “And this is not where I leave you. This is where we meet:” The commitment to creating a habitable planet for oneself and for future generations is an ongoing project that demands repeated wrestling with doubt and its vicissitudes.
This notion of faith, or one very similar to it, gets picked up by another writer-activist who has written on maintaining faith amid climate catastrophe: Rebecca Solnit. That she goes entirely unmentioned in such a reference-happy book might be a way to ward off an overdetermined reading of it. Nonetheless, there are strong similarities. For both Solnit and Sherrell, faith is extra-factual and requires a sociality to keep it alive: hence, the need to write to someone, whether an unborn child, other activists, or concerned citizens. In Hope in the Dark—a book whose title could easily double for Sherrell’s own—Solnit writes:
Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.
Faith can thus be said to require a “teleological suspension,” not of the ethical, as Kierkegaard would have it, but full stop. Deciding to have a child is also like taking a leap of faith. In Warmth, we see Sherrell grapple with this decision all the way to the end: “If you’re born at all, it will only ever be through a crack, a pouring forth,” he writes. And a few pages later: “Imagining you is one of the things that make the Problem most real to me [...] yet it is only in the shadow of this immensity that I’ve ever questioned whether I should have you. I’ll admit I don’t always know what to do with this, how the idea of you contains both rationale and refutation.”
Whatever else it may be, the book’s epistolary conceit is not simply a gimmick. For one thing, Sherrell’s imaginative empathy with an unborn child strengthens his resolve to fight climate change—it allows him to keep the faith that his work is still worth doing. At one point, he reflects that his letter may be “a hedge against all this uncertainty. If building a family proves not to be an option—that is, if conviction or circumstance ultimately precludes it—then writing to you may be my only opportunity, however pathetic and imaginary, to feel something along the lines of what [Maggie] Nelson calls relation.” His epistolary address to an unborn child also reframes the stakes for thinking about the future that the child might inhabit—a task that is both “daunting and divine, quotidian and unending.” Is the future just a linear extension of the present moment? Or, as Sherrell seems to encourage us to believe, does it defy such neat extrapolation? Does it hold some secrets from us?
For Sherrell, faith undergirds the very fight for climate justice. At his first job out of college, he was recruited by the Sierra Club to mobilize as many as half a million people to march against climate change in New York. “Most days we fan out across the city, talking ourselves blue in the face but also trying to listen, to have real conversations about shared concerns. For the most part, we fail. We bring crews of volunteers to subway stations and music festivals, spend whole afternoons handing out flyers for the march, but few people want to stop to talk about the Problem.” On some days, he feels defeated and embarrassed, “trying to peddle my concern for the Problem and having it rejected again and again.” Yet he also encounters individuals who are willing to engage, seizing the opportunity to express a shared sense of anger. The march that is being planned is intended to target world leaders gathering at the UN, many of whom have displayed an egregious lack of urgency in addressing “the Problem.” The work of activism, as Sherrell well knows, requires the belief that, even in the face of continued congressional intransigence, the human species, which has singlehandedly transformed the entire planet, can become more thoughtful stewards of the environment. “Every march is an act of faith,” Sherrell writes. “You have to trust your story will braid into history, even if you’ll never be able to tease out its thread.” There is, too, a meta-faith that propels Warmth: the notion that the book itself, by steering us toward a Kierkegaardian conception of faith, can be a propaedeutic to achieving a more sustainable future.
The sense of ongoingness characteristic of an activist’s faith owes something to Aboriginal culture. In the fourth and final “movement” of the book, Sherrell recounts time spent walking with the Goolarabooloo clan, an Aboriginal tribe in northwest Australia that had successfully fought off plans by a fossil fuel conglomerate to erect a gas plant on their land. When the chapter opens, Sherrell has applied for a fellowship to walk the “heritage trail” or “Dreaming track” with the Goolarabooloo to learn about how meaning gets passed down from one generation to the next. One of the members, he writes, “tells us stories of another world, the Dreaming, which enfolds our own like a shroud. In this other world, everything is both itself and something else. Twin spits of rock are the fangs of giant serpents, and dry streambeds are the furrows left by their windings.”
Aboriginal culture, Sherrell points out, is the oldest culture for which there is a record on Earth. He invokes the anthropologist William Stanner, who posits that the Dreaming “occurs in the ‘everywhen,’ a time so fluid and capacious that sequence fades toward irrelevance.” The past is imbricated in the future and vice versa, events boomeranging back and forth from the Third World to the Fourth and on to the Sixth. This “thick” conception of time is not quite the same thing as the Jamesonian “eternal present” or the “deep time” that technocrats like to maunder on about. In its anti-periodizing impulse, it is the antithesis of Western constructions like the Anthropocene and Holocene and all the other “-cenes.” It points up the folly of trying to neatly delineate beginnings and endings and cleanly detach ourselves “from the world on whose umbilical grace we so palpably rely.”
Tellingly, in an application for another writing retreat in California, along the San Andreas Fault, Sherrell mentions that he wants to write “between timescales,” capturing what it feels like to be “alive in both biographical and geological time, of living with and through their disjuncture.” Although Sherrell doesn’t make the claim, one might also say that fusing timescales is an inherently anti-colonialist project. One way of defining colonialism is to say that it is invested in disentanglement and demarcation. Many indigenous cosmologies on the other hand, privilege an ontology of entanglement with kin and nonhuman others, and view the drawing of bright lines as ways of obstructing living beings from the totality of their environments.
The anthropologist Anna Tsing, whom Sherrell invokes, has written elsewhere that scale “is not just a neutral frame for viewing the world.” The planetary, the global, the first person: All these frames come with their own histories and ways of visualizing the Earth and ordering reality. The beginning of the Anthropocene is contested, but one hypothesis dates it back to the mass death of Indigenous peoples of the Americas in the sixteenth century. The Anthropocene would then be closely related to the emergence of a global European world system of unequal economic relations, and the ways of seeing and ordering reality that underwrote that global system. To write, as Sherrell does, from the first person and in a salubriously undisciplined way, is to give up a will to mastery. It is to refuse grand, Apollonian pretensions to capture the total topography of the discourse on climate change. What it offers instead is an ear-to-the-ground account that calls attention to our radical contingency—our status as “planetary accidents,” to borrow from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It is also to accept that, as Stuart Hall wrote in his own memoir, “Identity, in the singular, is never achieved with any finality. Identities, in the plural, are the means for becoming.”
For Sherrell, the everywhen does not offer a refuge from “the Problem,” but its saving grace is that it does not “consign us to an outcome. It just holds us here, in the Dreaming, never less than fully implicated, never more than partly in control.” This is, perhaps, what it ultimately means to be a faithful “coeval reader” of Warmth: We shudder at the sense of simultaneity and come to feel that each moment is ripe with world presence and eternal possibility.